Commentary

Bulls need just 49 seconds to set tone

Originally Published: May 6, 2011
By Michael Wallace | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- There was evidence throughout the crime scene at Philips Arena on Friday night that this was by far the Chicago Bulls' most lethal 48 minutes of basketball this postseason.

But they clearly didn't need 48 minutes to prove their point.

Nope.

That only took 48 seconds. Well, make that 49.

In two swarming, relentless, efficient possessions to open Game 3 against the Atlanta Hawks, the Bulls got a wide-open baseline jumper from Luol Deng. Then came a defensive stand that resulted in Derrick Rose snagging a rebound to ignite his own one-man fast break.

Then came Rose's finish at the rim to put Chicago ahead 4-0.

And then, essentially, came the towel.

"When I called that first timeout, 49 seconds into the game, I saw the [Bulls'] energy level," Hawks coach Larry Drew said two hours later. "I knew we were in trouble. I saw right then and there that my team didn't make the commitment. To be honest, that was very discouraging. Not even a minute into the game, to have a lack of effort. ... There was something wrong."

By the time it was over, Rose would post an MVP-worthy performance with a career-high 44 points, seven assists and five rebounds in Chicago's 99-82 victory to go up 2-1 in the best-of-seven series.

But this one was over from the start. Or a few moments after it.

In 49 seconds, the Bulls replaced the anguish and frustration from losing Game 1 in Chicago with the satisfaction of regaining home-court advantage and delivering the kind of statement-making performance that sent a strong message through the league.

"That loss at home really stuck with us," Rose said of that bitter taste his team carried into their Game 2 victory to even the series on Wednesday, that was still tough to swallow entering Friday's game. "We played with more intensity in Game 2 and it carried over to [Friday]. It's tough to beat us when we're playing good defense. It wasn't a perfect game, but we were certainly more aggressive."

If it were football, the opening flurry the Bulls unleashed Friday would have been the equivalent of a return man high-stepping and strutting his way into the end zone on the opening kickoff.

If it were baseball, it would be like the lead-off hitter and second batter both blasting home runs off the first pitch they saw.

If it were boxing, we're talking a two-punch knockout off the first jab and uppercut combination.

Officially, in each case, there's time to regroup, recover and regain the necessary focus to rally back into the contest. But that wasn't the case for the Hawks. Not Friday night. The Bulls were too good, and there was no doubt about that by the 11:11 mark of the first quarter.

No matter what the Hawks did, no matter how well they played or how many tough jumpers they might get to fall, they weren't going to beat this version of the Bulls on Friday. Not even if Dominique Wilkins were to step into a time machine, S-curl his hair and demand the ball on the wing.

This was a Bulls team that had no weaknesses. I know, I know. This is probably where you insert your jab at Carlos Boozer, who had six points, six rebounds and was essentially benched. But Chicago's performance even overshadowed another dose of deficient play from Boozer, who was replaced down the stretch by Taj Gibson, who responded with 13 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks.

Add that to Joakim Noah's 15 rebounds and five blocks and you see how the difference in energy, effort and execution between the teams was as obvious as the shock on the faces of Atlanta's starters after Drew called the timeout before there was time to break a sweat.

Just 49 seconds in.

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau pushes for perfection and is probably breaking down film right now looking for warts from what otherwise was a brilliant display by his team. He got an attacking, MVP-level performance from his superstar in Rose.

He got another night of dominance from his bigs on the boards, where the Bulls outrebounded the Hawks 43-37, which included an 18-9 advantage on the offensive glass. Chicago's bench outscored Atlanta's by a 34-14 margin. And every time the Hawks threatened to rally after falling into a 19-point hole in the first half, the Bulls seemed to respond with a Noah putback, a Rose jumper or some kind of contribution from somewhere on the roster.

Chicago had seven players who scored at least six points, including three in double figures. That covers offense, defense and specialists.

"We needed it to set the tone," Thibodeau said of the Bulls' attack mentality from the outset. "I like the resolve of our team. I don't know if it was our best [performance of the postseason], but our most important game will be the next one."

This was the version of the Bulls that looked every bit like the team that posted the league's best record and is led by the NBA's Coach of the Year as well as the MVP. And they looked nothing like the team that started the second round of the playoffs with that dud the other night in Chicago.

Even the Hawks recognized that much as the Bulls blew past them Friday.

It didn't even take a minute to see there was something very different about these Bulls.

"I think everybody was surprised by that -- the players, the fans," Hawks guard Jamal Crawford said of Drew's decision to stop play so quickly to send a message to his team. "Whenever you have to call a timeout less than a minute into the game, it's kind of disheartening. But coach felt like he had to do it. That wasn't how we wanted to start the game."

It was the primary part of Chicago's game plan.

"That created opportunities for us," Thibodeau said. "[Rose] was attacking from the start."

They were also working for an additional purpose.

Chicago sent a resounding message to the Hawks about which team is back in control of this series.

And it was the kind of statement that probably caught the attention of the Celtics and Heat, too.

Timing is everything for these Bulls.

They just didn't need much of it to get the job done Friday.